Being the Other in Germany

in 74th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Schayan Riaz

Anyone who has had the “pleasure” of going through any district administration in Germany, from scheduling an appointment to then struggling through the meeting, will take special pleasure in the early portions of Narges Kalhor’s Shahid. In this part documentary, part fiction, part musical theater, and really, who is able to say or classify anything going on here for sure, the director has hired an actress (Baharak Abdolifard) to play a version of herself. She wants to change her name, determined to remove the word “shahid”, meaning martyr, and turn herself from Narges Shahid Kalhor to just Narges Kalhor. Whether this is true or just a bit for the film, instantly becomes irrelevant. These aforementioned moments in a drab office have a comedic nature to them, what with all the German bureaucracy Kalhor has to deal with, and those unnecessarily long German words taking up the entire screen (a great visual joke). There are also visits to a psychologist who is doing his best to determine whether there is a case for a name change at all, whether it is permissible that “shahid” be dropped just like that.

If only there weren’t Kalhor’s great-grandfather (played here by Nima Nazarinia), the OG Shahid living it up in Iran a decade ago and from whom all descendants inherit the title. He has manifested in present-day Germany and made it his mission to try and dissuade his head-strong great-granddaughter from taking such a drastic step. Several of his companions accompany him in elaborately choreographed dream-like sequences. Soon, fiction and reality blur entirely, and the director keeps breaking the fourth wall to interrupt the proceedings, perhaps trying to reclaim her story and tell it in her own words rather than using all the actors and all the staging. 

Shahid is an intelligent comment on identity and ancestry, especially in the context of a country like Germany, where, if you look or are called a certain way, you are instantly “othered” by society. What starts as a simple look at changing one’s name, quickly becomes much more than that, an examination of being (or not being), where Kalhor manages to expertly switch between tones, techniques, and narratives, while never sacrificing her sense of humor or light touch.  

It is necessary to point out that while films like these luckily play at major festivals, in this case in the Forum section of the Berlinale, and attract international audiences, Germany is unmistakably an expert in “othering” individuals. It sounds cliche, but art does imitate life in this case and one only needs to look at the awards ceremony of the Berlin International Film Festival. 

When films like Dahomey by Mati Diop (Golden Bear for Best Film in Competition) or No Other Land by Basel Adra, Hamdan Ballal, Yuval Abraham and Rachel Szor (Best Documentary) win important awards, the reactions by the German media or German politicians show what a long way the country still has to go in accepting other realities, as well as other equally valid viewpoints. Minister of State for Culture, Claudia Roth, who just a few weeks ago defended the decision of inviting far-right politicians to the opening ceremony, now found it necessary to clarify in a statement that she only clapped for Israeli Yuval Abraham at the awards ceremony, not for Palestinian co-director Basel Adra. The latter was instantly shut out by a major German politician; you may have won an award at our festival, but we don’t agree with you winning it.  

Abraham spoke about the privileges he has over Adra back home, in a very honest manner, and parts of his speech were absurdly marked as anti-Semitic in Israel. He later blamed the German reactions to him receiving death threats and endangering the lives of him and his fellow filmmakers. By “othering” Adra and by calling into question the jury’s decision to award No Other Land, one wonders why the German media or German politicians don’t embrace discourse, why they in this case even feel the need to frame a Palestinian-Israeli collective striving for understanding and exchange as anti-Semitic. 

After the festival, Roth announced that she would make sure that one-sided anti-Israel statements don’t occur at the next Berlinale. According to her, this is a matter of how juries are put together and of which films are chosen by programmers. By this logic, there wouldn’t be any prize for Dahomey (as Mati Diop said on stage that she “stood with Palestine”) and a film like No Other Land, about the destruction of Masafer Yatta in the West Bank by Israel, would certainly have a hard time finding its way into the Berlinale program. How would Roth instruct the Berlinale to put together a more close-minded jury, what films would be invited, what pre-approved speeches and comments would be palatable for Germany? This is not at all what a film festival is meant to be, and certainly not what cinema should bow down to. 


Schayan Riaz
Edited by Savina Petkova